Saturday, March 22, 2008

American Anti-Intellectualism

Susan Jacoby of the Center for Inquiry has a new book, The Age of American Unreason, in which she discusses the various ways American culture has eschewed its intellectual heritage to wallow in ignorance. In this excerpt she expounds of what she considers the main culprits of our dumbth:

These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism…

I am very sympathetic to her views, although I’d need to add a lot of caveats to her condemnation of video culture:

The decline of book, newspaper and magazine reading is by now an old story. The drop-off is most pronounced among the young but it continues to accelerate and afflict Americans of all ages and education levels. Technophiles pooh-pooh jeremiads about the end of print culture as the navel-gazing of (what else?) elitists. But despite an aggressive marketing campaign aimed at encouraging babies as young as 6 months to watch videos, there is no evidence that focusing on a screen is anything but bad for infants and toddlers.

I’d like to think she goes into more detail than this in the book, because this brush is too broad. If she is talking about popular television shows, then her point would seem solid. Reading is an intellectually active exercise, whereas viewing a prime time TV show is so passive that our brains’ activity is comparable to when we are asleep. But there are also many video outlets of good solid information, be they NOVA specials, some of the more solid news channels, or a PBS political debate. With the advent of Youtube making it possible to pull up references at any time, the video market is making an intellectual comeback of sorts.

Further, even video games have become potentially educational. Successfully navigating the World of Warcraft or Civilization games requires a good amount of geographic knowledge, and the ever-increasing complexity of the games makes them very active exercises. If Ms. Jacoby’s idea of video games is Pacman, she is far behind the times, and perhaps needs to make herself more aware of what the cutting edge looks like. There is much room for optimism.

But her commentary on those whom rely on casual videos for their information seem right on, particularly with regard to politics:

” No wonder negative political ads work. As video consumers become progressively more impatient with the process of acquiring information through written language, all politicians find themselves under great pressure to deliver their messages as quickly as possible -- and quickness today is much quicker than it used to be.

Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidate -- featuring the candidate's own voice -- dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the daily candidate bite was down to just 7.8 seconds.”

Anyone doubting how much things have changed, who rightly suspect a little too much nostalgia in this view that things were so much better in the good ol days, need only go watch some video (a good example of my counter point) of some presidential election debates past. Particularly watch the Kennedy/Nixon debates, which are full of detailed, complex viewpoints, the kind that would put modern American audiences to sleep.

This is also what allows professional prevaricators like the Discovery Institute to get away with their shenanigans over and over again. Without an audience with the patience to dig for the full context, or background information (or lack thereof) of what IDers say, they can get away with half truths repeatedly.

” The shrinking public attention span fostered by video is closely tied to the second important anti-intellectual force in American culture: the erosion of general knowledge.

According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it "not at all important" to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it ‘very important.’

I think she chooses a bad example here. The necessity to know a foreign language varies tremendously by geography. Sure a Lichtensteinian had better know several languages, but a guy in Iowa could easily live his entire life and never encounter a non-English speaker. In some ways language is really just a bit of trivia. After all, it is a highly varying part of reality, with words coming and going every year. Most of geography by contrast is the sort of knowledge that aids in understanding the major issues of the day. A person who speaks Farsi but doesn’t know that Iran is between Afghanistan and Iraq, isn’t going to understand Iran’s nervousness about the US nearly as well as the English-only speak who does.

But she hits the real problem with her third rung:

The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.

Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism.

Ed Brayton had a great rejoinder to this:

"But I think it goes even beyond that, and I go back again to the argument I made in my C-Span speech about the difference between mundane ignorance and virulent ignorance. Yes, this mundane ignorance is disturbing, as are the many rationalizations offered for it ('some of the dumbest people I know have PhDs but they lack common sense'), but it pales in comparison to the effects of virulent ignorance.

Far too many of those who think they're knowledgeable on some very important subjects have in fact been educated into even greater ignorance, swallowing a series of falsehoods and half-truths that make them think they know what they're talking about when they don't. Memorizing a dozen "proofs" that the earth is only a few thousand years old does not cure one's ignorance of geology, it only serves to inoculate the credulous against actual evidence."

Exactly. And getting your science from Ann Coulter and your sociology from Bill O’Reilly doesn’t mean you know anything either. This is the result of what I call Internet Isolation – people who get on the internet, not to acquire knowledge, but to validate their beliefs. They refuse to read regularly anyone who disagrees with them, then begin judging, as having poor intellectual credibility, anyone who disagrees with them, even, most troubling, on matters of opinion.

The glaring example of this, of course, is politics. Americans increasingly only watch news opinion shows that agree with them, and dismiss as lacking credibility anything that says otherwise. This leads to intellectual stagnation by weeding out dissenting opinions. Then once you decide you agree with someone on everything (be they Rush Limbaugh, Barbara Streisand, or Fox News), you simply take whatever position they take, and grant credibility to anything they say. This is the only way you get a nation where one third of the people think the president is doing a terrific job, and another third thinks he's the worst in American history. Once you stop honestly considering dissenting claims, zealotry is inevitable. And zealots don't solve many problems. They are also very hard to cure, as Jacoby notes in her penultimate closing paragraph:

There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it.

Indeed. We need not rehash all the problems with the No Child Left Behind approach. We already know monkeys can be taught to type. What we need is more education, not higher test scores. We also need a large adjustment in the way we evaluate information and draw conclusions.

This is, in a sense, why I started this blog. I am convinced that the scientific method, with it's insistence on peer review, falsifiable testing, and public scrutiny, is superior epistemology. It has what America needs most: built-in doubt, overt recognition of our fallibility and bias. We bullshit ourselves sometimes. It is the easiest intellectual trap to fall in: Believing what you want rather than what is. Science is better than all the other ways of knowing because it is the only one that assumes that from the outset.

It has given us practically everything around us: our medicines, the polymers in our clothes, much of our food, the fuels we use to run our machines, and the computers we read this on. And yet the movie scientist is far more likely to be the villain than the hero. We live in a "follow your heart, not your head" culture. THAT is what has to change. We have to learn to respect, and dare I say love, the scientific method. Individual scientists are like the rest of us: some good, some bad, a whole bunch in the middle. But the process, the inherent recognition of the possibility of error, the respect for reality, for data, for intellectual honesty that is science at its best: THAT should be in the place of worship that is currently occupied by ancient desert gods invented by men prior to scientists teaching us that the sun doesn't orbit the earth.

The answer to the problem Jacoby identifies is to be as scientific as we are able, and to demand the same of others. Science has a limited application, made necessary by limiting itself to that which can be tested. But in that realm it has no match, and there we should be relentless in insisting on it, and only it, as a way of determining the information with which we make our decisions. That there is still a debate over evolution in this nation is ludicrous. That some otherwise intelligent people deny that we landed on the moon is embarrassing. To fix that, we have to change attitudes about science. Otherwise, our intellectual decline will continue until we become a nation our great-grandparents wouldn't recognize, and our great-grandchildren won't want to live in.


Peter L. Winkler said...

"Reading is an intellectually active exercise."

Irrespective of what one is reading? Is reading the latest volume from Ann Coulter more intellectually engaging than watching even the worst TV show? One could easily argue that reading certain kinds of material is actually intellectually destructive.

Before TV, let alone the internet, most people attended movies in far greater numbers than today, were glued to their radios or, if they read at all, read pulp magazines or pap like movie fan magazines.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your points, and am also highly concerned with the prevalance of anti-intellectualism in the United States.

However, to claim that science will have dominion over other ways of knowing is not realistic. No person, whatever that persons training and methodology, is completely capable of extracting him self emotionally from decisions that he makes. In fact, based on my experience in Europe, Americans have a much less nuanced understanding of emotional aesthetics than the citizens of many other nations.

I would argue that to ignore all of our philosophical and artistic heritage would be a grave mistake. What America needs is people who are willing to look at things with open minds.

ScienceAvenger said...

Our inability to extract ourselves emotionally from our decisions and beliefs is precisely why science should rule. It's the only epistemology that explicitly presumes that weakness and builds layer upon layer of scrutiny to protect us from bullshitting ourselves.

Who said anything about ignoring our philosophical and artisic heritage?